Teachers and students seem to agree with near unanimity — it’s difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the in-class experience on a computer screen.
Yet, given the hand they’ve been dealt, teachers in Litchfield Public Schools have been doing what they can during the COVID-19 pandemic to make students learning at home feel like part of the classroom.
“There has been a lot of change,” Litchfield Middle School Principal Chelsea Brown said. “They (teachers) are rewriting the playbook in all of this.”
When this school year started in August with classrooms open to everyone, teachers were trying to reach the nearly 80 students who had chosen to attend class remotely. The task became more challenging last week, when — with COVID-19 infection rates rising in Meeker County and some reported cases in the school — the middle and high school switched to the so-called hybrid instruction model.
Under that model the student body is divided into two groups with Cohort A attending in-class instruction Monday and Tuesday, and Cohort B in school on Thursday and Friday. When not in school students attend class virtually, on their school-issued laptop computer. Teachers and students use Wednesdays as a conferencing or “check-in” day to ensure students receive the instruction they need.
Everyone in the educational system received a sort of test run for distance or at-home learning this past spring. An executive order from Gov. Tim Walz closed all schools in the state in March in response to the pandemic.
“Since that Friday, March 13, (when the executive order came down) I’ve told our teachers we are going to be building that plane while flying it,” Brown said.
During the more than two months of distance learning in the spring, teachers and administrators pinpointed issues with instruction and technology and tried to react to them on the fly. During the summer months — unsure what school might look like this school year — the district tried to refine its distance learning tactics.
“We spent all summer preparing,” Brown said. “A lot of really good things that we did came out of all of this.”
One of the most significant things was a plan for synchronous learning — the idea that all students, whether in the classroom or watching on a laptop at home, would receive the same instruction at the same time. It’s an approach that leans heavily on technology, with teachers gathering their at-home learners with in-school students through the Google Meet application.
Of course, that starts with access to a computer, a tool that was ensured when district residents approved a technology levy in 2014 allowing the purchase of one laptop or tablet for every student.
“We are very fortunate to be a district that had the one-to-one devices right off the bat,” Brown said. “Many districts were really struggling with this, because they didn’t have the funds or means to have one-to-one devices.”
Katie McGraw, a math teacher at the middle school, agreed that the district’s technology investment has made the transition to the era of pandemic teaching easier.
“To be able to teach synchronously, we’ve never done that before, so that is a learning experience,” McGraw said. “But I just think our district is leaps and bounds ahead of where, when I talk to other teachers from districts that have never done any of it, are.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of professional development on how to use technology,” McGraw added. “When we first got our Macbooks, we were spending most of our professional development on just how to use this technology. So we are very fortunate to be able to have that background.”
Given that one-to-one technology baseline, the district still had to figure out “how do we enhance opportunities for kids, especially when they are working at home as online learners,” Brown said. “We’re growing this model. It’s been so impressive with our staff, with how they’ve embraced this.”
Heading into the school year, the district purchased a tablet computer for every classroom teacher, along with a gooseneck stand. Paired, the two items allow the teacher to stand at the front of the class and be captured on a live-stream video, so that students in the classroom and at home receive the lecture at the same time.
“I think as a district, for synchronous learning, we’re doing as well as we could be doing,” Matt Dahl, a science teacher at the middle school, said. “Not saying it isn’t a challenge, but we have the tools.”
Dahl is in his sixth year of teaching in the Litchfield School District, where he has taught everything from sixth-grade science to high school biology. Nothing could have prepared him for the kind of teaching he and his peers are doing now, he said.
“It definitely is different than any year I’ve taught before,” Dahl said. “If there’s one thing it’s shown me it is that kids learn the best in school. It makes you appreciate them being in school.”
Students have overwhelmingly supported in-person instruction, Dahl said, and were concerned when the move to hybrid learning was announced.
McGraw, who is in her 29th year of teaching, agreed with that assessment, though she said she thinks both teachers and students have begun to adapt to online instruction.
“Kids are learning the system, they’re learning how to be online learners,” McGraw said. “It takes time, but I think it gets better every day.”
Some of that improvement has to do with the way that teachers spot a problem and look for a solution.
An example is that the middle school will add remote speakers and speaker headsets for to classrooms for teacher use. That decision comes from recognition that masked teachers — everyone in any school building must wear a mask or face shield — can be difficult to hear and understand.
Brown credited McGraw and Dahl with experimenting on their own with headsets and Bluetooth speakers. Using that system has made it easier for both in-class and at-home students to understand the teachers, McGraw said.
State guidelines require teachers wear a mask if they will be in close contact with students. However, a face shield is permissible when distanced. Both, however, create an issue with projecting speech.
McGraw said she prefers to wear the shield, so her students can see her facial expressions. But when she leaves the front of the classroom to interact more closely with students, she puts on a mask.
Dahl, meanwhile, wears a mask most of the time.
“I love to move around the room,” he said. “If I wear a mask, I don’t have to think about, ‘Oh, I’m going to interact a little more closely now.’ But either way, (mask or shield) drastically reduces where your voice goes. So something a lot of teachers are doing now is … voice amplification in their classroom.”
In a nearby classroom, meanwhile, social studies teacher Bill King uses Bluetooth earpieces with microphone, which allows him to talk directly to students learning at home.
“He’ll say, ‘Hey, Timmy, are you there?’ Doing that as a quick check to engage those kids at home,” Dahl said. “He really loves having them in his ear.”
In another classroom, language arts teacher Susan Rohrbeck uses a touchscreen television mounted on the front wall. The screen is visible to students in the classroom, but also to those attending class through their laptops. Use of the touchscreen television is a pilot project for which Rohrbeck wrote a grant request.
She jokingly discussed her new teaching tool during class last week, during which she admitted she was still learning its operation and many applications, an admission that drew a laugh from students in the room.
Rohrbeck has been designated as the technology coach at the middle school, offering training sessions for teachers and paraprofessionals, but all teachers are learning from each other.
“It’s peers learning from peers, which is great,” Brown said. “We’re asking a lot of them, and they have really embraced it.”
It’s been interesting to see some of the traditional teaching mentorships change during the past several months, Dahl said.
“The kids’ strength with technology … it has forced us to take a giant leap in our technology,” Dahl said. “Some of the younger teachers that used to lean on more experienced teachers … now that’s been kind of flipped, and the younger teachers are now helping more experienced teachers with the technology part of it.”
All with the goal of improving synchronous learning, making at-home learning as close to the actual classroom as possible.
“One big takeaway from the kids … kids learn best in school,” Dahl said. “I want to be in school, too. It makes the job easier. I prefer it over being at home.”
But until full-time, in-school instruction returns, teachers will continue to look for ways to improve the educational approach and, as Brown put it, “build the plane as they fly it.”